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Really digging a hole for themselves with Dail tunnel idea

For the residents of Leinster House, the outside world is becoming a pretty scary place. Following last Tuesday's mini-riot by sinister republican groups outside the Dail gates, gardai are bracing themselves for a much bigger demonstration tomorrow night.

In such a febrile atmosphere, it's hardly surprising that our politicians are anxious to keep their time spent mingling with the public to an absolute minimum.

Even so, the news that TDs are considering a proposal to build a €1m tunnel between Leinster House and the Department of Agriculture, in order to save themselves a 100-yard journey up Kildare Street, sounds like a bad joke. Sadly, like a lot of bad jokes associated with our political system, this one turns out to be absolutely true.

The details are simple. As part of its overall restoration works, which will resume when the Dail rises for its summer holiday in early July, the Office of Public Works wants to construct an underground passageway from the seat of parliament to Agriculture House.

This building is being largely vacated by the department, since most of its staff are being decentralised to Portlaoise. The space will be taken over by Oireachtas staff, which should save money in the long run since it will allow them to give up the leases on other offices that they currently rent.

The economic justification for the underground tunnel, however, is rather harder to make out. Since the two buildings are separated by less than a minute's walk across a closed-off road, the only purpose seems to be a small saving on TDs' shoe leather.

In the overall context of our economic crisis, €1m is admittedly not a huge amount of money. At a time when the elderly are being threatened with a cut in the old age pension, however, the symbolism of TDs throwing away cash on a self-indulgent upgrading of their own facilities is particularly unfortunate.

This kind of short-sighted thinking will play right into the hands of tomorrow night's protesters, who thrive on the perception that TDs are completely out of touch with the hardships being experienced by ordinary people.

Of course there is no defence for the thuggish behaviour we saw last week -- and nobody wants to see the kind of mayhem on our streets that led to a pregnant woman being burned to death in the Athens riots earlier this month.

As long as politicians have to be dragged kicking and screaming into making even the most modest reforms to their own expenses, pensions and working conditions, however, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they really are their own worst enemies.

The fate of the passageway now rests with three party representatives on the Oireachtas in-house accommodation committee (Fianna Fail TD Michael Mulcahy, FG senator Paul Bradford and former Labour leader Pat Rabbitte), who will report to the OPW.

If they have any sense, they will kick it into touch and try to forget the idea was ever raised in the first place.

Anything else would just be a sign of tunnel vision.